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Man sees he can 'make a difference'

Wyatt Buckner, who was born with muscular dystrophy, can barely lift aglass to his mouth. But that hasn't stopped him yet.

Buckner, 32, has gotten ramps built for wheelchair users. He has developed a driving program for disabled people. And he has helped the physically impaired overcome the obstacles of living alone.

This month, Buckner was named Citizen of the Month by the North Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He is being honored for his work with Self Reliance Inc., a center that teaches disabled people to do more for themselves.

"Wyatt is certainly my hero, and the staff's and clients'," said Tom Ulvenes, director of Self Reliance.

"He decided what he wanted to become early on, and he made it happen," said Buckner's wife, Faye. "He knew it was up to him."

Today, Buckner is program coordinator for Self Reliance, overseeing transportation, counseling, outreach and ramp-building programs for the 12-year-old non-profit organization.

"I've been living to make a difference in someone's life," Buckner said. "So, when I see these articles saying, 'Wyatt Buckner - Citizen of the Month,' it reinforces the idea that I can make a difference."

No one knew that Buckner had the disease when he was born in Harrisonburg, Va. The illness was diagnosed at a Shriner's Hospital when Buckner was a toddler.

Buckner suffers from Kugleberg-Welender, a form of muscular dystrophy that worsens over time. Able to crawl as a child, Buckner now rides in a semireclined, motorized wheelchair.

More than once he has come close to dying. "Wyatt has seen death in the bed next to him," said Mrs. Buckner, a hospice nurse.

Yet, Buckner said, his parents treated him as an able-bodied person.

"They taught me that if I believed in myself, others will believe in me," Buckner said.

In 1979, Buckner moved from Virginia to Florida to get away from the cold climate and to find work in social services. In 1982, he received a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation from Florida State University. Two years later, he received a master's degree in rehabilitative counseling from the University of South Florida.

Since the move, life has not gotten easier. Four years ago, he backed into the family swimming pool and sank to the bottom in his wheelchair. His fast-acting 5-year-old son, Anthony, ran to a neighbor's house for help.

Mrs. Buckner said her husband is in the hospital two or three times a year because of his propensity to catch pneumonia. Yet, he boosts the spirits of Self Reliance clients with talks about independence.

"Wyatt is a non-stop dynamo," said Dan Cassidy, community outreach coordinator. "There is a great misconception about what someone with a disability can do."

For example, Buckner surrounds himself with things he needs - from

lightweight cups and flexible straws for drinking to tape recorders to make reports.

"Being independent is knowing how dependent you are," Buckner said.

"Wyatt makes me do a lot of things I wouldn't ordinarily try," Fern Austin, a disabled volunteer, said. "When you've been handicapped for so long, you tend to give up on a lot of things. But he always encourages you to try to do your best."

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